Tai chi is a great way to stay fit and healthy and has something to offer everyone. The slow fluid movements make it a gentle exercise for the elderly. On the other hand, a style like chen tai chi can be more intense and challenging enough for the physically agile. If you are a beginner who’s interested in starting a tai chi regimen, we have the lowdown to get you started.
1. Tai Chi Must Begin With A Warm-Up
Most tai chi classes start with some simple movements designed to warm up your body. These help loosen your joints and muscles and bring your mind’s focus to your body and your own breath, freeing it from distractions or stresses of the day. You will do things like1:
- Turning your head from side to side
- Rocking back and forth
- Shoulder circles
A simple walk, massage, or even hot shower can also be a part of the warm-up.2
2. Practice Basic Tai Chi Stretches And Movements
Each tai chi form, a flow of seamless steps, consists of what is called a movement. The movement itself will comprise some sub-steps and may take some doing to perfect. Typically, a new movement will be added to your form each week, helping it to “grow.”3
Remember, it’s best to keep it simple at first, work on the basic movements, and perfect them before you attempt more ambitious, longer, or complex ones. You will also learn breathing exercises designed to build self-awareness and gain an understanding of the various concepts of tai chi.
3. Master These Basic Tai Chi Stretches: Turning Head, Heaven And Earth, Forward, And Side Stretch
The next few stretches are classic tai chi movements. Your instructor will run you through the paces on these in the weeks to come. Typically, each pose is done for 3 to 5 repetitions.4
Turning Head Stretch
You will stretch the neck with this pose.
- Inhale, bringing up both your hands toward your chest from a lowered position – picture them being gently lifted by floating balloons.
- Now turn your left hand, with the fingertips facing up to the ceiling and the palm facing you. Simultaneously push down your right hand to your hip, with its palm facing the ground. Look at your left hand.
- Let your gaze follow your left hand as it moves to your left side, turning your head gently.
- Return to face the front and repeat on the other side.
Heaven And Earth Movement
This movement helps stretch your spine.
- Place your hands one over the other in front of you, palms facing each other. It should feel like your right hand is cupping a large beach ball from below (palm facing up) and the left is holding it (palm facing down) on top.
- Bring your right arm up as if you are pushing up against the ceiling with the flat of your palm, while your left hand pushes down into the ground with the palm facing the floor. You should feel a full stretch along the length of your spine. Repeat, reversing arms.
An immediately recognizable tai chi movement, it is designed to work on your hips.
- Stand upright, feet slightly apart, arms outstretched in front of you at shoulder height.
- Bend both knees a little and bring your left heel forward a bit, tilting your left foot so it only makes contact with the floor at the heel. Push your hands (palms flat and open) back to help you balance better.
- Now step back with your left foot pointed, resting only on its toes now. Your arms should be extended forward again at shoulder height to help with balance. If going to this position directly is hard, step with both feet together before stepping back with your left foot.
Another hip stretch for the body.
- Stand upright, arms at shoulder height in front of you.
- Bend your knees a little with arms to your right side, leaning your arms to an imaginary wall with both palms flat on it, pushing against it. Your left leg should now stretch out to your left side so it forms a triangle with the floor and your right leg.
The tai chi kick is not forceful as in most martial arts but is designed to strengthen your knees and balance.
- Stand upright, arms to your sides, hands balled into loose fists and palm side up by your hips. Your knees may bend a little.
- Stretch your left foot out in front as if you’re kicking – except the movement must be slow, controlled, and gentle. As you do this, punch gently and slowly with your right hand, with the palm side of your fist facing down. Return to the starting point and repeat on the other side.
Here you gently tap your foot into the ground, stretching the ankles and strengthening them.
- Stand with hands on your hips, knees slightly bent.
- Move your left foot forward a little so you can tap the ground with that heel.
- Next, with this leg still a little in front, tap the toes to the floor. Do the heel-toe tap thrice before returning to start position. Repeat on the other side.
4. Progress To Tai Chi Forms, Starting With Shorter Forms
The majority of your time after a warm-up will be focused on practicing tai chi forms made up of multiple movements. They are dubbed short or long form depending on whether they comprise a dozen movements or less (short) or hundreds of movements (long).
As a beginner, you should start with short forms that have smaller and slower movements so your body gets used to the exercise before you take on more challenging poses. If you are already physically active and not elderly, you could try more complex or swifter movements.5
Expect to take anywhere from 2 to 6 months to master a short form that’s about 10 minutes long. Long forms that run for 20 minutes usually take beginners 6 to 8 months to pick up. Instructors usually teach movements to slowly add to the form you are picking up bit by bit.6
5. An Introduction To One Popular Form: The Simplified 24-Step Form
To give you an example of what a typical tai chi form looks like, we’ve got some details on one that’s popular the world over. The typical “Simplified Form” is a 24-step form that is used with minor variations by instructors in classes and also in tournaments or displays. It comprises five main sections7:
- Commencing Form
- Left and Right Part the Wild Horse’s Mane
- White Crane Spreads Its Wings
- Left and Right Brush Knee and Push Forward
- Playing Lute
- Repulse Monkey Left and Right
- Grasp Sparrow’s Tail Left
- Grasp Sparrow’s Tail Right
- Left Single Whip
- Wave Hands Like Clouds
- Left Single Whip
- High Pat on Horse
- Right Heel Kick
- Strike to the Ears with Both Fists
- Left Heel Kick
- Left Lower Body and Stand on One Leg
- Right Lower Body and Stand on One Leg
- Fair Lady Works with Shuttles
- Needle at Sea Bottom
- Fan Through the Back
- Turn Body, Deflect, Parry, and Punch
- Apparent Closure
- Cross Hands
- Closing Form
6. Cool Down After Tai Chi
As with the warm-up, a cool-down segment is vital for any form of exercise, including tai chi. Here are some movements to try:
- Punching Thigh: Raise your right leg, bending at the knees, and punch your thigh gently. Repeat on the other side.
- Tense and Relax: Stand arms to sides, hands balled as loose fists. Inhale as you clench your hands and contract the muscles throughout your body, tensing them. Try and balance on just your toes if possible. Exhale and relax every part of your body, releasing your hands and unclenching the fist and opening the palms to your sides.
7. Learn 4 Basic Postures Of Qigong Breathing
Based on the idea that the universe is a balance of opposing elements of yin and yang in harmony, and that the energy force qi courses through your body, tai chi is believed to unblock and aid the normal flow of qi.
Qigong, also known as chi kung, is at the heart of any tai chi workout. It aims at relaxing your mind and mobilizing the energy or qi that your body contains. You will typically do this through a combination of movements and gentle breathing. You can even practice it seated or lying down – you don’t have to stand. It is said to benefit the mind, body, and spirit and can be applied to every aspect of your life, including the way you interact with people.8
This combination of meditation and breathing techniques is core to tai chi. It is believed that you take in qi from food and water to circulate through the body, helping maintaining health. The stronger your energy or qi, the healthier you become. Here are four qigong exercises for you to start with9:
Posture of Infinity: For Posture Awareness
This makes you aware of your posture. It connects to the concept of the universe originating from a vast void or infinity, hence the name.10:
- Stand upright with your feet apart, relax your body, relax your knees.
- Let your eyes gaze forward. Tuck your chin in. Relax your shoulders.
- Now clear your mind. Focus on maintaining this upright posture without tensing up your body.
Posture of Tai Chi: For Dan Tian Awareness
It is believed that from this infinity, the universe grew into a state of “tai chi,” a huge ball of opposing halves of yin and yang. This posture is supposed to help make you aware of dan tian or the space that is three finger widths from your naval and the qi center of the body.11:
- Begin with posture awareness in the posture of infinity.
- Next, raise your hands up slowly so your palms face each other, inhaling as you do.
- Now bring your hands toward your chest as you bend your knees just a little. Focus on the dan tian. Stretch out your arms again before bringing the hands down and standing up slowly.
Posture of Opening and Closing: For Breathing Awareness
Make yourself aware of your breathing, the central aspect of all qigong, with this posture. The closing movement relates to yin and the opening movement to yang. Aim to do it about thrice as a beginner and slowly build up to more repetitions.12:
- Begin in previous tai chi posture and inhale, opening your hands up to shoulder distance apart. Gently straighten knees if they are tired.
- Exhale as you push your hands to each other as much as you can, without actually allowing them to touch. Picture a gentle magnetic force that’s between your hands and pull against it as you inhale and push against it as you exhale.
- Gently bend the knees and keep opening and closing your hands multiple times. Your mouth should be lightly closed with the tongue grazing the upper palate.
- To end the exercise, stretch your hands out in front, then return to the earlier position straightening the knees.
Posture for Raising and Lowering: To Circulate Energy And Build Qi Awareness
This posture makes you aware of your qi and helps with circulation of energy. Most people describe the qi as a slightly heavy, warm sensation. Do this about three times at first and raise your count as you get stronger.13:
- Start in the posture of infinity. Bring your hands up slowly as you inhale.
- Do the opening and closing movement.
- Now exhale as you bring your hands down and stand up, straightening the knees. Picture your qi moving down your body to the dan tian. If this is hard, just visualize or think of the area three finger widths below the navel as you exhale.
- Inhale as you raise your hands up again along your chest, bending down with each breath. Picture your qi moving up your body to the center of your chest.
|↑1, ↑5||The health benefits of tai chi. Harvard Health Publishing.|
|↑2, ↑4||Lam, Paul. Tai Chi for beginners and the 24 forms. BookBaby, 2008.|
|↑3, ↑6, ↑8||How Are Tai Chi or Qigong Movements Taught?. World Tai Chi Day.|
|↑7||Tai Chi 24-Form Movements. Yang’s Martial Arts Association.|
|↑9, ↑10, ↑11, ↑12, ↑13||Four Qigong Exercises. Tai Chi For Health Institute.|